A Military Life

By Edward G. Lengel

Random House. 450 pp. $29.95


The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

By Gary B. Nash

Viking. 512 pp. $27.95

Why are books on the American Revolution so popular? Some have suggested that Americans now worried about the state of the nation like to read about a time when "we had it right." The truth may be simpler: The easy availability of modern, comprehensive editions of the papers of the Founding Fathers has allowed good writers without extensive historical training to write intelligent, readable books for broad audiences. Historians with strong storytelling skills, such as Joseph C. Ellis, also depend on modern editions of the founding fathers' papers.

The people who know the subject best -- the scholars' scholars of our time -- are the editors who spend day after day and year after year copying and arranging those documents, adding introductions to explain their contexts and notes to identify obscure references. Edward G. Lengel is an associate editor of The Papers of George Washington, of which 52 volumes are in print, with another 40 to go. He has drawn on those papers, published and unpublished, in writing General George Washington: A Military Life. The book takes Washington from his first military experiences on the Virginia frontier during the 1750s, when he found "something charming" in the sound of bullets whistling through the air, to his death in December 1799, when he was technically still on active service, supervising the re-creation of an American army during the undeclared war with France.

First-time readers often find Washington's papers frustrating. He wasn't given to graceful prose, as was Jefferson. Indeed, Washington was more an MIT than a Harvard type: His mind inclined toward management and technology rather than philosophy or literature. He also cultivated a certain distance -- itself a management technique -- from all but his closest associates. But the editors who spend their days with the voluminous papers that Washington carefully preserved know him like a family member. Lengel tells of times when Washington's temper broke through his labored control, of his abandonment in old age of Henry Knox (a loyal friend for a quarter-century) and his unwise interventions in the Adams administration (inspired, Lengel suggests, by a conviction "that no one could run the country as well as he").

General George Washington is not a biography but a military history that takes Washington from battle to battle -- and, in the end, gives him a mixed review as a soldier. He was neither a creative military thinker nor a great tactician, Lengel writes. Early in the Revolutionary War, Washington made one error after another and escaped disaster only because the British commander, Gen. William Howe, failed to advance. Washington reversed the downward cycle with his victories at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776, and at Princeton in early January 1777, but "the performance was not repeated." Even the Franco-American victory at Yorktown was due more to the French commander, Comte de Rochambeau, than to Washington. When the French fleet became briefly available for a coordinated action in the fall of 1781, Washington wanted it deployed in New York; Rochambeau secretly told Admiral de Grasse to go to the Chesapeake, then oversaw the Franco-American siege that forced the British surrender.

Washington was courageous in battle, but he was "not an enlisted man's general." He won the army's trust only after Valley Forge, where he lasted out the winter while other officers went home. He had "tremendous dedication," along with an extraordinary talent for management and an ability to work with both the states and the Continental Congress. His strength, Lengel argues, lay in his unique combination of "military, political, and personal skills." As a soldier, "he was erratic but competent," but as a leader, "he was great."

General George Washington does not, then, present Washington with uncritical admiration, the way David McCullough portrayed John Adams. And yet the book's balanced assessment of Washington is satisfying and thought-provoking. Lengel gives us a believable Washington -- not a god or even a sphinx but a man who, with tremendous willpower and a good dose of luck, managed to overcome shortcomings of temperament, skill and experience and lead to victory an army of often desperately poor soldiers working for an upstart Congress that had no money. And he was, despite his limitations, the best we had -- the most admired man of his generation by far.

Gary B. Nash's The Unknown American Revolution is a very different book with a very different optic on the founding era. It is firmly rooted not in the papers of the Founding Fathers, but in the mass of scholarly work produced over the past four decades by Nash and other historians determined to reveal a history of America that goes beyond the history of great white men. (That means, of course, that the stories he tells here are hardly "unknown.") Nash, a professor at UCLA who was at the center of the battle over national history standards a decade ago, wanted to describe "the revolutionary involvement of all the component parts of some three million wildly diverse people living east of the Mississippi River." The result, he claims, is a democratized, "alternative, long-forgotten American Revolution," and an alternative to the dominant, "triumphalist version of the past in which the occupants of the national pantheon, representing a very narrow slice of society, get most of the play."

The book is divided into chapters that cover successive chronological periods from the mid-18th century through 1785. Each chapter includes five to seven segments on slaves, insurgent farmers, Indians, evangelical religious dissenters, impoverished soldiers in the Continental Army, women who sought greater status in the new republic and other "ordinary" people. Perhaps the strongest of these is on the enslaved, but all are concrete, even personal; Nash tells his stories through individuals, such as the escaped South Carolina slave Boston King or the Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe. But there are so many names and so many stories that the narratives can be hard to follow.

This is not a book about a time when "we had it right." Tenant and backcountry uprisings are suppressed; Southern slaves flock to British camps in search of freedom and die in droves from smallpox; American troops massacre Indians and destroy their homes and crops, leaving the survivors destitute; poor soldiers in the Continental Army go unpaid and are brutally punished when they mutiny; women's aspirations for greater civic status are put off. It is difficult to connect these stories with the "birth of democracy" or "the struggle to create America," as the subtitle suggests, since many of the people Nash describes became Loyalists who died during the war or left the country, or (in the case of Indians, even Indian allies) remained apart from the American state and society.

In fact, the book is weakest on the struggle with Britain and the creation of the American republic -- core events of what we remember as the revolution. Since the development of independence has been told in "countless histories," Nash focuses instead on conflicts within American society, which for him pitted persons of privilege against the poor who "railed against the pyramid of wealth and power." But 18th-century American society was actually shaped more like an onion than a pyramid: It had, according to Johns Hopkins University historian Jack Greene, the largest class of independent property holders anywhere in the Western world. American society then included a small elite of self-made men and an underclass of "dependent" people (tenants, wage workers, indentured servants, slaves), many of whose white members eventually made it into the middle class. The breadth of property ownership explains why a resistance movement concerned with property rights could attract a broad base -- and makes class-based interpretations problematic.

Where Nash sees class conflict, something else was often going on. A Boston "riot" on Aug. 26, 1765, for example, responded more to depositions on smuggling than class resentment and was condemned, not condoned, by local radical leaders. Nash seems unaware that John Locke and other English "Whig" writers said that legitimate opposition to authority had to be based on "the body of the people," which inspired resistance organizations like the Sons of Liberty to recruit members from a broad cross-section of white male society. Instead, Nash misinterprets appeals to "the body of the people" as simple attempts by revolutionary leaders (who were themselves pretty "ordinary people") "to curb the formation of class identity" among "disaffected" members of the "laboring ranks." He comes close to celebrating crowd violence against "oppressive local oligarchs." Revolutionary leaders such as Samuel Adams never made that mistake. For them, democracy demanded institutionalized expressions of the majority's will, not "unruly" ad hoc attacks on persons considered obnoxious for one reason or another.

Nash celebrates the "radical" state constitutions adopted by Pennsylvania (1776) and Vermont (1777), which centered power in unicameral legislatures. But he disdains the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 -- which he sees as the result of a "regressive," anti-popular movement and drafted by the "inegalitarian" John Adams -- because it put checks on the legislature and imposed property qualifications for office and the vote. You'd never know from Nash's account that the Massachusetts constitution included democratic devices such as annual elections and allowed towns with only 150 adult men to send representatives to the state legislature. It also explicitly said that "all men are born free and equal" -- a phrase that allowed slaves to sue successfully for their freedom in Massachusetts courts during the 1780s, thereby ending slavery in that state. The Massachusetts constitution became a model for the federal Constitution; of all the first state constitutions, only it remains in effect, making it the world's oldest still-operating written constitution. "Regressive" doesn't do it justice.

This is not to say there was no social conflict in revolutionary America -- or that Americans agreed on what their revolution promised beyond independence and a republican government. But after going through one account of repression after another, readers will sense that something's left out of this "alternative" history -- that the past was richer, more complicated and less easily forced into simple categories than Nash suggests. To be sure, it's easier to write a balanced history of an individual than of an entire society or a protracted event. But by showing us a flawed George Washington, Lengel may well enlist the empathy of more "ordinary" readers than Nash's more ambitious and polemical "people's history" of the revolution. *

Pauline Maier is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American History at MIT. Her books include "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence."